A look at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page raises some interesting, and in some ways troubling, issues about how public agencies use social media in carrying out their duties.
In the comments section of many posts, statements range from accusations of specific crimes to calls for authorities to hang individuals for non-capital crimes. In the still-evolving world on Internet law, we are concerned not only with the potential liability to which the sheriff’s office is exposed to the effect of such virtual lynchings on our system of justice.
Arrest records are published by many publications, websites and organizations on a daily basis, including in this newspaper. We report the resolution of some cases, but not nearly all, subsequent to those arrests. Many of those arrested are cleared of the charges, have them reduced or dismissed or participate in various pre-trial diversion programs, such as teen court or drug court. Of course, many are also convicted, jailed or given probation. Until that point, though, all persons who are arrested are deemed innocent until proven guilty. It’s a basic tenet of our justice system that any American would be loath to see disappear.
The sheriff’s office regularly posts pictures of the people deputies and detectives arrest and accuse of crimes. They do a great job of that and we are a safer county for their efforts. Sheriff Grady Judd has one of the best clearance rates around and we are glad he and his deputies work so hard to solve crimes and arrest suspects.
We don’t know how the cases on the sheriff’s Facebook page will turn out. Nobody does. The courts will try the suspects and justice will be served. But the Facebook discussion will go on. As the cyber saying goes, “The Internet is forever.” The comments about these suspects will follow them indefinitely, regardless of the result of their cases or how their lives turn out.
Recent comments about a robbery suspect on the sheriff’s Facebook page are illustrative: (We have not changed the spelling in any of the posts reprinted here):
- “Looks simular to the fellow that strongarm robbed me in Ovedo years ago. Son? He better not use that in his defense. Catch him and give him worse lawyer on rotation.”
And when two young men were arrested in June for allegedly squatting in an unoccupied home the Internet vitriol was particularly bad:
- “Meth an drug dealers all pay off. To keep the law off there butts. Thats all it is. The house across my street. The faimly all deals in over the counter. Pain pills and coke. Cars come in all hours of day an nights. People walk to the gate all day and at nights. I reported it over an over. Noone wants to hear it. I know of 6 people that live there would go down. But nope. We have to live with it.. Anyone know how we can take matters in are own hands ?”
- “Stupid always has the same idiot look!”
The issue is not any particular incident, but anything posted on the PCSO’s Facebook page. We have had similar misgivings in the past about the unmoderated and immoderate tone of the user comments.
The comments are not something a professional police force should be promoting or sponsoring. It gives the world a picture of Polk County that is not flattering or accurate. We should be telling the world that our sheriff is a great crime fighter and that our citizens believe in the criminal justice system — all of the criminal justice system — even the part where suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
Ironically, Internet libel law tends to encourage owners of websites and social networking pages to leave uncivil or libelous content alone, because the more effort an owner makes to edit, remove or censor comments, the more liable he becomes for what is left on a site or page. That said, we wouldn’t be surprised if an enterprising lawyer took aim at the agency for the content there. In the end, the agency has made a choice to use a platform for spreading arrest or other information that is notorious for potentially libelous comments.
Facebook has proven a useful platform for public agencies to reach wide audiences, both for law enforcement and other government information and services. The question is whether the benefit of the website outweighs the risks it poses, both to the agency and people who are targeted by users with snarky scorn, unsubstantiated allegations, speculation and flat-out lies. Even if the risk of a libel suit is limited, we wonder if it’s just plain wrong.